M-R U doing it? Motivation-Reaction Unit

It sounds like a Special Ops and indeed it is – for novelists.

Dwight Swain’s legendary book Techniques of the Selling Writer goes into great detail about this, but I’ll chuck out the coal and keep the gold for the sake of space.

What is a Motivation-Reaction Unit?

An MRU is simply this: motivation-reaction. Okay, that’s cheating and being as clear as mud.

The explosion rocked the air.

Bob felt his heart dissolve in his chest. He ducked, covering his head. Jesus, I need cover.

Okay, so that isn’t a literary classic but it does the job.

The motivation is: The explosion rocked the air. It’s the physical event that sets of the reaction. It could be anything from a bang to a slap, or even the lights going out.

The Reaction part of the unit is split into three:

Emotion: Bob felt his heart dissolve in his chest.

Reflex: He ducked, covering his head.

Reason: Jesus, I need cover. The Reason is clear thought, getting hold of your senses.

The MRU follows a natural progression. You can’t react to something that hasn’t happened. Take this for example:

Bob ducked, feeling his heart explode in his chest as the explosion rocked the air.

The motivation for Bob to duck hasn’t happened yet, so why is silly Bob ducking?

The same goes for the Reaction. you can use all three, two or just one depending on circumstances but they must always be in Emotion, Reflex, Reason order. You can’t reason you need cover if you don’t feel like you need it.

You could just have Emotion and Reflex, leaving the Reasoning out for a little later, or if you want the character to be in blind panic, leave it out altogether; what ever impacts the story better.

Now, the Motivation and Reaction must be split by a paragraph.

The explosion rocked the air. Bob felt his heart dissolve in his chest. He ducked, covering his head. Jesus, I need cover.

Keeping it together, as above, doesn’t give the same impact and seems more like reporting than telling a gripping story.

This has one pitfall: overuse. Be careful how many times you use this in your draft, it can become tiring, not just for the reader, but for you having to think out the process for every event. I recommend tense scenes, emotional scenes and action scenes, leave two buddies at a bar discussing their wives to normal prose.

Psychic Distance isn’t about how far a Medium has to travel

I want you all to check out this post by Emma Darwin – A Great Granddaughter of Charles Darwin (yes, him), and this one here.

Psychic Distance is all about zooming in on a character, and even useful for swapping a P.O.V. mid scene if – that’s the word – if done right.

Here’s a brief sample from the first link:

And since sometimes it’s hard to see how this can equally well apply in first person, and to a less realist project, I’ve done a version which does both. Watch how in this version still has a sense of narrator, and a character, but this time they just happen to be the same persona:

  1. In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth.
  2. Every village had its witch, and we feared or consulted her according to how desperate we were.
  3. When I was a child Mistress Margit frightened me, and when she walked down the street the big ones would shout “Here comes Old Margit!”, while I hid and crossed myself.
  4. And here came Old Margit, with her ragged clothes and her big black cat, and I shivered and prayed because St Mary would save me, wouldn’t she?
  5. Margit’s coming and her cloak like little demons dancing and what’ll I do – mustn’t catch her eye – hide in the ditch cold and wet but Black Peter will see me – Mother Mary save me, he’ll look at you and then Margit can see into your mind and plant demons in there and…

Obviously it’s really a spectrum, not separate stages, but you can see what this is about, can’t you?

1) is remote and objective. It has a nice ‘Once upon a time’ feel to it but doesn’t give us any sense of one or more particular characters in the story as a person with thoughts and feelings: a consciousness. It tells us a lot about where we are and what’s happening, but if it stays at this level we might not care much about this person, and it limits the writer’s scope for exploring how he experiences the world and himself. It’s the subtitle across the beginning of the film that locates us.

2) is bringing in some particulars: the narrator is telling us (informing us) about a place, and an individual and their emotions. Think of it as a wide-angle shot of a village, or a voice-over.

3) is more particular, more personalised still: the narrator’s voice is beginning to show us (evoke for us)  the particular character and their experience. This is, to quote James Wood’s How Fiction Works, “standard realist narrative”: in other words, the predominant mode of the vast majority of fiction: the narrator is in control, taking us into the experience of this world and that of individual characters and quoting speech directly. A medium shot where we can identify individuals.

4) is beginning to colour the voice of the narrator with the the vocabulary and point-of-view of the character. Shorthand for this is that we’re going further into the character’s head, courtesy of free indirect style, (7/7/2014: finally got that link to my new post to work) as invented by Jane Austen: “God how he hated … ” and “St Mary would save me, wouldn’t she?”. But, of course, we’re losing touch with anything that the character doesn’t see or think, or any other ways of saying it. In a movie – which can’t go inside heads – we could see a face, and try to read what it’s feeling.

5) is tight close-up and subjective: almost a brain download, with thoughts and sensory information all jumbled up. In Wood’s terms this is stream of conciousness. The character’s voice is wholly present and the narrator’s voice has faded out. It’s extremely expressive of this person’s character and situation. But if we stay at this level we may never understand what’s going on, and it limits the writer’s scope for moving between different characters and their consciousness.

Read those two posts, they’re amazing. It takes practice, and some of you may already do it naturally, but it’s good to get an overview from others.

Blaming the horse: Distribution, sales and you

Honestly, I’m pissed off with self-publishing glory hunters.

I see it around the net quite a lot: Don’t use Smashwords. Stay clear of Amazon. I sell nothing on Nook/Kobo. And it’s all to do with how much profit an author makes. Why are authors blaming websites for their lack of sales? Show me a condition in their terms where it says they’ll market it for you? Edit it?

In self-publishing it’s YOU and only you. Blaming the workhorse because you forgot to fix the wheel on the cart isn’t going to get you very far.

Here’s the thing, I respect Mark Coker at Smashwords and Jeff Bezos at Amazon for one thing: they know what they’re doing and know how to reach out. Yes, these two men may not see eye-to-eye a great deal when it comes to publishing, and if they knew I’d lumped their names together in a post I’d probably be lynched, but they’re both men to listen to when it comes to distribution and sales.

Here’s five reasons why you’re probably not making money:

  1.  Your book sucks. Really sucks. Typos, bad edit, extraneous crap slowing down story.
  2.  Your cover looks like a five year old did it in Tux Paint. See here for Derek Murphy’s graphic on covers.
  3.  You’re marketing to the wrong genre. You got vampires, werewolves in leather but they’re all into incest and you’ve got it in YA. Or you failed at ‘Genre Conventions’ and your Sci-Fi is more Lo-Fi and not worth an interplanetary geek’s time.
  4.  You’re a Spam Seller. That’s someone who goes on Facebook and Twitter and constantly shouts BUY MY BOOK. If there’s one way to get ignored and ignored well you’re succeeding. Have a PhD.
  5.  You don’t promote yourself. This may seem contradictory to rule 4, but it’s not. Promoting yourself means showing the world YOU not your badly edited, badly designed, genre-misplaced, spammed book. Nothing brings a reader closer to an author than when the author says “Hey, here’s some info from…” and shares to his reader the love for books and the business. They didn’t come to you or blog to hear about how your last love affair turned out.

When you fail to sell a copy, or even have one downloaded for free it’s down to those five or the endless string of mistakes authors make: bad keywords for instance. It has nothing to do with the site your book is on (and I don’t get paid for saying that.)

It’s the “In it for the money” crowd that are the worse complainers because they do nothing about it. You’ll see them pulling their books from one site to another in a pointless little merry-go-round without changing the way the book looks, reads, or marketed. They think that if they have a book out they’re instantly Patterson or Amis and don’t need to do a damn thing but sit back and get rich. Good luck with that.

Next time someone says they didn’t make money on Smashwords or failed to get a single hit on KDP it’s worth thinking of those five points before you go “Golly, really. Oh, well I won’t be using them, then.” You’d be the world’s biggest moron if you did.

Remember, word of mouth. If what you give to the world is worthy of gossip it’ll get around. If all you give is a half-baked slush pile and refuse to improve it then to the slush pile you go, and don’t slip on the way down.


The Literary Conspiracy of Plotter vs Pantser

To join in with author Dean Wesley Smith, I want to kill a ‘sacred cow’ in the writing world. In fact I want to torture it first, then kill it.

Traditionally, authors are split into two groups: those who outline their work until it’s three times the size of their novel, and those that simply don’t. I hate to mention his name because – gasp, shock, watch out for witch hunters – I’m not a fan, but Stephen King is the most famous pantser, never outlining, just running with an idea. Traditionally, there are two groups.

In the absolute reality, what these groups are about is merely who spends weeks or months ‘plotting’ – which seems to give those that do some sort of elevation on the literary scale; and those that spend those weeks actually writing – which seems to drop them into a pit of sewage when looked upon by the literati. It’s all about ‘my thing is better than your thing.’ Pick up a book right now and tell me if the book had an outline or the author just went for it. Can’t tell, can you?

The two groups are wrong.

There is no such thing as a plotter or a pantser.

Sitting comfortably? Good, stand up, I’m a sadist.


The outline is God. Without the great and merciful Outline one can never write a superior work.


There are two types of plotter: the ones who outline and follow it loosely and the ones who outline and glue it to their body parts. These two factions are at war, mainly because the questions arise: How closely should you follow your outline? If you don’t follow it like a train follows the track then what’s the point of an outline? It becomes an almost philosophical debate, like trying to prove the existence of a supernatural being using only a tape measure and half a lemon.

Outlines are guides, yes. They help spot plot holes and whether or not the story is working from a hundred different angles but you pants more than you plot.

You see, dear plotter, even when you outline and follow it to the nail or let it roam free and call it back when you need it, you’re pantsing. Tell me, in your outline, no matter how dense, did you include all your dialogue? Did you get the minutest description? No? Well, you must have made it up then, outside of the outline, yes? So you pantsed it.

When you begin your outline do you have an outline to show you where to go in the new outline? No. PANTSER! You pants your outline. You made it up off the top of your head before going to revise it.

Plotters don’t exist. They’re pantsers hiding behind a stack of paperwork – like your local councilman.


Like the plotter there are two types of pantser: those that just sit down without an inkling of where they’re heading and those that have worked an idea out in their head.

Running Blind

Those that just sit down and see where it goes are just as much plotters as they are pantsers. While they’re writing, when they see a line to follow, when a plot starts to appear, they follow it working out where to go next. They plot while they pants: also known as plotting your pants, which is curable at a price.

Deep Thought

Those pantsers that work things out in their head are plotting without killing a tree or burning electric. They sit down to write with the major points already in their heads.


Plotters seem to think that if they have a stack of paper or index cards or a Scrivener file three terabytes in size, then they are above the ones who don’t need that kind of work.

The Pantsers seem to think wasting a month deciding what you’re writing only to write something that vaguely resembles an outline is pretty much a waste of time and fences them in like a pack of wild Raptors.

Yet, they’re the same person. A pantser will scribble an idea down, so will a plotter. A pantser will use the first draft as his outline, but with more to show for it than a plotter, and the plotter will write an outline that they probably barely look at.

As said, it all comes down to the size of the paperwork. Like how Literary novelists scorn those who release a book every year: “You hack!” It’s all about quantity, yet both plot and pantsed novels are equally good. Sometimes one is better than the other.

Remember folks, it ain’t the size it’s how you use it. You’re all plotters and pantsers no matter how you write. I make a mini outline and probably heavily outline six chapters but that’s it. Some make a list. Some lay out ten or twenty index cards. In the end, somewhere in their process, they will both plot and pants.

So if it bothers you, don’t let it. Every business has sides, writing isn’t an exception. But if you want to keep a healthy mind, ignore the argument “To Plot or to Pants, that is the question,” and just get on with writing.